Black Girl (1966)

Ousmane Sembène | 1hr 5min

When Diouana is first picked out by ‘Madame’ as a nanny for her children back home in France, she can hardly believe her luck. Among a crowd of women desperately scrambling for a job on the streets of her Senegalese village, she is the only one not pushing her way to the front, trying to beat the others out. At first the decision to pick her, the quiet, patient one, seems gracious. Clearly Madame sees the virtues of a good worker in her, she believes, even if she does not have any experience. In hindsight, it is an obvious red flag – of course a bitter, domineering woman like Madame was going to choose whichever Black woman looks the most subservient. Confusion, regret, and loathing boil within Diouana over the course of her slavery-adjacent employment, and through her voiceover memoirs, Ousmane Sembène leads us into the heart of her suffering.

In its acute examinations of racial oppression, Black Girl stands proudly as a tentpole of both African cinema and Sembène’s directorial career, evoking the stylistic sensibilities of the French New Wave in its handheld camerawork and location shooting in Dakar and Antibes. Visually, Sembène defines both cities by their architecture, recognising their colonial parallels while drawing a sharp distinction between his camera’s immersion in either. Back home in Senegal, Diouana walks through streets as a free citizen, set against gorgeous backdrops of streetlamps and bridges. In France, the urban environment merely manifests as views from the windows of Madame and Monsieur’s home. As she looks out at the city drenched in darkness, she recalls the promise she was given for a better life.

“The mistress told me: ‘You’ll see, Diouana, there are lovely ships in France.’ Is France that black hole?”

It quickly becomes apparent that the French dream of liberty and equality is not reserved for people like her, as Sembène trades out Dakar’s streets for the closed-off interiors of the family home. He stages his scenes here with a constant sense of oppression, in one shot letting the family relax in the foreground with only Madame’s feet in the frame up on a table, while Diouana is wedged between walls in the background, shrunken and subjugated by the boxes drawn around her.

When it isn’t the physical infrastructure dominating the frame, it is the condescending, disapproving expressions of white people, caught through vulnerable point-of-view shots that land us in Diouana’s eyes. In a pair of extended flashbacks, she recalls the set of circumstances that led her servitude, and with her employers taking it upon themselves to respond to her family’s letters, she comes to feel even more cut off from her own past and identity. All that is left is that tiny prison, which quickly becomes her entire world.

“Back in Dakar they must be saying ‘Diouana is happy in France, she has a good life.’ For me France is the kitchen, the living room, the bathroom, and my bedroom.”

The only mark Diouana has on the space is a single African mask, standing out in Sembène’s black-and-white photography as a dark imprint against the blank wall it hangs upon. It is a gift she brought to her employers, though one which they accept as little more than a decorative museum piece, cheapening her very presence and contribution to the household. As her treatment grows worse, so too does her depression, and her contempt for Madame eventually erupts in a struggle to reclaim that mask she had so courteously offered them.

The foreshadowing Sembène lays out in Diouana’s anguish makes her suicide no less upsetting. It is at this point that her pervasive voiceovers that have accompanied every step of her journey cease, thus ending our primary vehicle of insight into her mind. Within the broader French society, her death manifests as a mere headline in a newspaper, read by people relaxing on beaches. For Madame and Monsieur, it is similarly nothing more than a disturbing disruption to their privileged lives. Not long after, the bathroom that Diouana slit her throat in is entirely spotless, all traces of her existence and demise completely erased from their home.

In depicting the ease with which the racial trauma of Black Girl is swept under the rug, the post-colonial allegory that Sembène puts forward fully comes to fruition in its final act. Monsieur’s voyage to Dakar to return Diouana’s belongings to her family and pay them out is a weak attempt at compensation, and one that they have no trouble seeing through. Much like the young boy who dons her old mask and stalks Monsieur through the streets, so too does the memory of Diouana and France’s colonial history at large haunt him with a lingering guilt. In this tensely edited sequence, there is no end to his running. It can be wiped from physical records, but memories of the atrocities committed against the African people do not fade.

Black Girl is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

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